A bill put forward by Minnesota Senator Al Franken designed to enforce tighter restrictions on software that tracks the location of individual mobile devices has been approved by a U.S. Senate committee.
The bill, known as the Location Privacy Protection Act, would make it illegal for companies to sell apps that either reveal the location of a user’s smartphone to other users or collect data on the user’s location without their knowledge or consent. The only exception to these rules would be in the case of parents hoping to monitor their children’s activity.
The bill was supported by the Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday. Speaking to The Hill’s technology blog, Senator Franken put the issue in terms of personal privacy, saying that tech companies had been given too much power over the unregulated use of their customers’ data.
"I believe that Americans have the fundamental right to control who can track their location, and whether or not that information can be given to third parties," Franken said.
"But right now, companies -- some legitimate, some sleazy -- are collecting your or your child's location and selling it to ad companies or who knows who else," he added.
Mobile apps already exist that are considered to be “spy software,” according to the BBC. While these apps grant the ability to do clandestine activities such as recording and updating users on all of a given smartphone’s activities, their developers insist that their software is not intended to be used as a so-called “stalker app” for the average smartphone user. Instead, they are explicitly designed to help parents protect children, or allow employers to monitor their staff’s activity during the workday.
"It's really, really troubling that an industry would see an opportunity to make money off of strengthening someone's opportunity to control and threaten another individual," Karen Jarmoc, executive director of the Connecticut Coalition Against Domestic Violence told the Associated Press.
Senator Franken's new proposals therefore aim to make such apps like this illegal without the phone owner’s explicit consent.
However, David LeDuc, senior director of public policy at the Software & Information Industry Association, thinks that a voluntary “code of conduct” on data collection within the tech industry would have a stronger influence on developers than outside control by legislators.
"This flexible, consensus process is better able to ensure that policies are not technology or platform specific," LeDuc wrote in a blog post last week.
Just this week, the web company Gigya introduced its own social privacy certification to set a new standard for web developers and show their customers which brands offer relatively greater transparency about how they plan to use user data. But even this kind of measure may ultimately need to extend beyond social logins alone to fully protect user privacy -- a process that LeDuc thus argued would be easier without the arbitrary limits of legislation that may not be able to meet the rapid pace of tech development.
"At a time of increasing convergence, where ‘applications’ are seamlessly offered across a wide range of devices, fixed laws such as this would stifle technological evolution by creating a distinct privacy regime based on a specific type of device," LeDuc concluded.